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Festivals facing the future

Music audiences’ age structure and consumer patterns are changing, offerings are growing and becoming more varied, but for now, one thing remains unchanged: there are enough festival-goers in Finland for hundreds of festivals. Organisers must nevertheless have their feelers out for changing expectations from their customers.
Flow Festival. Photo: Jussi Hellsten.

Flow Festival. Photo: Jussi Hellsten.

Music audiences’ age structure and consumer patterns are changing, offerings are growing and becoming more varied, but for now, one thing remains unchanged: there are enough festival-goers in Finland for hundreds of festivals. Organisers must nevertheless put their feelers out for changing expectations from their customers.

 

BY RIIKKA HILTUNEN

 

Why do people attend festivals and how do festivals manage to hold on to their ticket buyers? How should they address the changing age structure of their audiences? How to get customers to buy their tickets in advance? What kinds of services do audiences require from festivals, and which directions should festivals take in order to move forwards in the future? These are some of the universal core questions that Finnish festival organisers are also struggling with.

Answers to these questions were sought last February in Seinäjoki in Southern Ostrobothnia at the MARS (“Music.Assembly.Research.Showbusiness”) event, aimed at music professionals. The keynote speaker Markus Keränen was jointly invited by the JOHDE II project, run by the Sibelius Academy (University of the Arts Helsinki) and the Finland Festivals organisation. Keränen is a futurist and CEO of 15/30 Research, a creative research agency, and he presented his conceptions to do with certain strengthening trends in the popular music festival scene. His central ideas revolved around the possibilities opened up by technology as well as audience participation. One of Keränen’s key points was that people are tired of others doing everything for them. They want to attend festivals in order to actively participate, instead of just passively observing others.

Demanding and participating audiences

Festival organisers are well aware of the increasing level of demand from audiences. The largest popular music festivals now aim to provide immersive experiences, as opposed to simply focusing on programming for the main stages which used to be the norm.

An important part of the concept of experience economy is having a strong sense of community, as well as finding ways to include customers in the making of the festival. Event organisers think long and hard in order to discover new ways to engage their audiences and subsequently to get them to commit to buying tickets well in advance and to keep returning to the festival year after year.

The attendees at the MARS event in Seinäjoki tried to come up with tools for enabling customers to have a tangible influence in areas such as programme content. Kai Amberla, CEO of Finland Festivals and one of the event participants, does not believe, however, that the model of artistic direction is coming to its end.

 

Kai Amberla.

Kai Amberla.

“I would even suggest that in the midst of today’s digital noise, the role of an artistic director is getting more pronounced. I do think that the majority of people are happy for someone else to decide for them. Would you choose to visit an art gallery that had no curator?” Amberla asks.

Festival trendsetter

Flow Festival in Helsinki has been a real trailblazer among Finnish festivals. In addition to quality programming, their emphasis has always been on finding ways to increase audience satisfaction, and their festival audiences share a strong sense of togetherness. Artistic direction, however, plays a significant role. Artistic Director Tuomas Kallio and the rest of the artistic team choose performers based on their subjective perspectives, while listening to the feedback and opinions provided by their audiences. It does seem that their audiences place a strong trust in the artistic team’s choices, and they show interest even in those bands they have not heard previously.

According to Suvi Kallio, Managing Director of Flow, the event has a conscious aim to create markets and trends instead of just following them. However, this is not achieved in a calculating manner.

Suvi Kallio.

Suvi Kallio.

“The way we make Flow is still very much based on content, our gut feeling and collaboration with our extensive networks. We take advantage of our versatile and many-aged networks when designing our programme and our services. Audience surveys help develop our festival services.”

Due to circumstances, however, strategic planning far into the future is almost impossible.

“We operate on a fairly short time span and with a down-to-earth approach. In Helsinki, for example, it is impossible for us to predict the future further than the next couple of years, due to future plans for the venue and event permits that are renewed on a year-to-year basis,” says Suvi Kallio. The Flow Festival takes place in the industrial precinct of Suvilahti, which is next to the ongoing development of the brand new residential suburb of Kalasatama.


From abroad…

A certain type of trend could be identified in the fresh models of international partnerships. In the past year, a couple of big popular music festivals have announced their collaboration with international organisers.

The festival scene is following this year’s Provinssi festival with special curiosity. The festival, which takes place between 24–27 June in Seinäjoki, has suffered from poor financial results over the past few years and has now taken up an offer of collaboration from the largest European festival organiser, FKP Scorpio from Germany. The partnership extends to the Helsinki-based Fullsteam Agency, which was acquired by FK Scorpio last autumn, and as a result the festival is being jointly produced in Seinäjoki, Helsinki and Germany. Provinssi is so far the only festival in Finland adopting such an operational model, and the partnership’s main advantage is the access to bigger artists than before.

According to Festival Director Sami Rumpunen, the new international player has been welcomed with open arms by the festival scene.

“This is benefiting us greatly. We can make fast decisions and keep our finger on the pulse. The clients have also welcomed the change in an extremely positive manner, and they understand that while this new operational model is creating new possibilities, it does not change the event itself.”

Sami Rumpunen.

Sami Rumpunen.

Rumpunen is certain that the collaboration will increase the festival’s international recognition, but he remains doubtful about generating audience interest from abroad. At the moment, Provinssi has no major marketing strategies outside of Finland.

“Even with growing name recognition, Finland will not move any closer to the rest of Europe. We are still in a fairly remote corner, and there are many big festivals in different European countries taking place at the same time.”

 

…and to abroad

Helsinki’s Flow Festival is slightly closer to Central Europe, and the festival has managed to attract a lot of positive attention in the international media. According to Suvi Kallio, 10 per cent of the 2014 festival guests came from abroad, but the aim is to double that amount in the next few years.

In spring 2015, the festival organisers announced that this summer, Flow will be organised in Ljubljana, Slovenia, as well (Flow Festival Ljubljana 26–28 June 2015). A similar model has been adopted by the Helsinki-based Weekend Festival, which will be replicated in Pärnu, Estonia, this year (Weekend Festival Baltic 6–8 August).

Suvi Kallio says that selecting Ljubljana as the festival host city was partly coincidental.

“For a few years, we had entertained the idea of replicating the event abroad. An acquaintance of ours in Ljubljana was planning to produce an event and asked for our help. We went to see the city and found it ideal for an event such as Flow. Ljubljana is an enchanting small city with a fantastic atmosphere, and everything is within walking distance. Next to the city centre, we discovered an old industrial building with a surrounding precinct which we found suitable for a festival. Ljubljana is also ideally located, in close proximity to the Mediterranean.”

According to Kallio, this first event is a trial run that has the potential to pave the way to the future of the Festival. Flow’s goal is to become one of the most significant and interesting festival brands in Europe – and, why not, worldwide.

Kai Amberla points out that Finnish festivals have always been international in one way or another, even more so than the rest of the Finnish arts scene.

“With our international visiting artists, internationality has been self-evident. But the concept of the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival, for instance, has been replicated in many different locations, including Ireland, although the benefit to the original festival has been limited to a status boost. In my understanding, Finnish festivals, especially classical music festivals, have often been modelled abroad. The ideas must have been exported through the visiting international artists.”

However, Amberla can sense a pressure for change in the current landscape, regardless of the genre, and particularly in relation to attracting audiences from abroad.

“The domestic saturation point is reaching its limit in that the only way to expand is to secure international audiences for the festivals.”

 

Where have all the young boys gone?

One of the concerns at the festival scene is society’s changing age structure. How is it possible to hold on to the ageing festival-goers while attracting younger audiences at the same time? It is a challenge to get the younger generations to commit long-term. According to the Festival Barometer 2014 survey, facilitated by various festivals, the youngest responders indicated they would be most likely to attend the following year, whereas the oldest responders believed they would be still be participating in ten years’ time.

“Today, being a festival customer has become socially acceptable even for people over thirty. But we feel it is important that the festival does not age alongside its supporter base. Our absolute focus is now on the 19–25-year-olds, and we need to remain interesting in their eyes,” Rumpunen states.

Amberla is even slightly amused by the concerns voiced by the rock scene.

“The classical scene has been worried about ageing demographics for as long as I can remember, but nothing has happened! And now the rock scene has joined in to worry about exactly the same issue. The only real threat is perhaps the very youngest generation, 15–25-year-olds, and particularly men from this age group. It is already very clear in Japan, for instance, that young men have vanished from the consumer radar. And where have they gone? Into the digital world.”

Feminisation is a new phenomenon at the rock scene, although Amberla states that in many other cultural circles, such as classical music, theatre and visual arts, there has always been awareness about women being more active than men as culture consumers. Women’s response rates to the Festival Barometer survey were higher (63 per cent of all responses), and the results further revealed that 75 per cent of the ticket buyers at the Turku-based Ruisrock Festival were women, with the Tuska metal festival remaining the only festival where more than half (57 per cent) of responders were men.

In addition to attracting both genders to festivals, Amberla feels it is important to capture different demographic groups.

“Society is getting more pluralistic, but it is unfortunate if this is creating more and more groups which fail to discover what is on offer. Here is a real challenge to the festivals’ marketing strategies: how to speak to different audiences using their own languages.”

Visions reaching up to 2025

The MARS event also included a service design workshop moderated by Markus Keränen, with an aim to create a vision for a festival in 2025.

Keränen’s idea of allowing customers a flexible paying time was particularly popular. According to Keränen, consumer behaviour surveys have showed that online shopping dominates young people’s consumer patterns. The reason is that online shopping allows flexible terms of payment. How else would a poor student afford an iPhone? Festival organisers were inspired by the idea of developing more committed customer relationships by offering the option to subscribe through monthly payments, for instance.

Out of the many different opportunities created through technology, MARS festival visions included virtual concerts and cashless transactions. Sami Rumpunen feels that the latter is an extremely realistic and even likely outcome.

“Cash will quickly disappear from the major events. Payment systems are rapidly developing and it is only a matter of time before festival wristbands include an embedded microchip that can be used for payments.”

At the Provinssi festival, a separate payment wristband will already be in use this year. Rumpunen thinks it is self-evident that international partnerships, as adopted by the Provinssi festival, will keep increasing in the future.

“I am positive that another big Finnish festival will be taken over by a large, international organisation in the next year or two.”

The number of festivals is not likely to reduce, especially if each and every event calling itself a festival is counted as one. Amberla talks about the festivalisation of culture, which is an international phenomenon. Even the smallest one-day events are now labelled festivals, and there are several festivals happening at any given weekend in Helsinki alone. Amberla is happy about the popularity of festivals, but at the same time he sees reasons to be concerned.

“When a word is used in such a loose context, there is a danger that the status of festivals becomes unclear and their uniqueness gets watered down to the level of a regular concert. In Europe, politicians and financers love the festivalisation of culture as it creates structures that can be extinguished at any time. The pop-up culture is a fun phenomenon but it can create difficulties for organisers with long-term visions.”

On the other hand, the one-off nature of festivals is one of the factors which make it particularly intriguing to be involved in the scene.

“In these circles, the way of thinking is startlingly future-oriented. A festival is organised, then it dies down completely and a new festival is created. I have never heard anyone in the festival scene pine after the good old days, as opposed to what I hear through my other projects,” Amberla states.

 

The writer works as Editor at the Finnish Music Quarterly as well as working towards her PhD on the future-oriented thinking of Finnish songwriters. The thirty-something has visited Provinssi 18 times and Flow 9 times, and sees herself still attending festivals in ten years’ time.

Translation: Hanna-Mari Latham

 

Festivals in Finland

  • It is difficult to estimate the exact number of festivals in Finland, but according to Kai Amberla, Executive Director of Finland Festivals, there are at least 500 active festivals in Finland
  • Finland Festivals is an umbrella organisation for 90 festivals, the majority of which occur in summer
  • FF audience statistics show a continuing growth in festival attendance figures
  • In 2014, the estimated total attendance of the FF member festivals (including estimates from different free events) was well over two million
  • www.finlandfestivals.fi

 

Provinssi

  • Organised in Seinäjoki since 1979, known as Provinssirock until 2014
  • 2015 main acts include Muse (UK), Calvin Harris (UK), Faith No More (US) and The Cardigans (SWE)
  • Attendance record 81,000 from 2011
  • Half of the festival attendees choose tent accommodation, and the festival is committed to delivering good services and a fringe programme at its camping sites.
  • www.provinssi.fi

 

Flow Festival